Terror trial plan criticized

Military lawyers question effort by White House

September 08, 2006|By Richard Simon | Richard Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration's proposal for bringing accused terrorists to trial drew criticism from top military lawyers yesterday as congressional Republicans worked to bridge differences within their ranks over the White House proposal.

A group of influential GOP senators who have been critical of the administration's proposal worked through the day to try to come up with a compromise. Congressional Republican leaders - looking to highlight their party's efforts in fighting terrorism as the November midterm elections approach - are pushing for a vote on new rules for military commissions by the end of the month.

President Bush exhorted Congress to adopt his plan for holding trials for terrorism suspects - including the most notorious prisoners in U.S. custody - after the Supreme Court struck down the administration's system in June.

`Some progress'

"I think we're making some progress," Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said after a round of closed-door meetings.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and a key negotiator who at one point rushed down a hallway in a Senate office building accompanied by administration officials, said only that he was optimistic that an agreement could be reached.

Meanwhile, Pentagon lawyers took issue with a key provision of the administration's proposal - permitting judges to deny suspects the right to see classified evidence used against them.

"I can't imagine any military judge believing that an accused has had a full and fair hearing if all the government's evidence that was introduced was classified and the accused was not able to see any of it," the Army's Judge Advocate General, Maj. Gen. Scott Black, told the House Armed Services Committee.

Brig. Gen. James Walker, a Marine Corps staff judge advocate, said, "I'm not aware of any situation in the world where there is a system of jurisprudence that is recognized by civilized people where an individual can be tried and convicted without seeing the evidence against him. And I don't think that the United States needs to become the first in that scenario."

Supporters of the administration's proposal said they worry that allowing accused terrorists to see classified information could threaten national security.

"In the midst of the current conflict, we cannot share with captured terrorists the highly sensitive intelligence relevant to some military commission prosecutions," Steven Bradbury, acting assistant attorney general, told the committee.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has expressed concerns about the administration's proposal, said that if legislation is passed soon, trials could start as early as next month.

"I do think Americans would feel better if we could start these trials," he said in an interview.

McCain said Republicans were negotiating in an effort to draft a bill that would win support among Democrats.

"We want to act in the national interest on this issue," McCain said. "The initial desire is a bipartisan agreement. This is too important to get hung up in party politics."

As McCain, Graham and Warner attempted to work out their differences with the White House, a number of Republicans were ready to vote on the administration's proposal.

House GOP leaders - whose rank and file appear to strongly support the president's proposal - said they intend to bring the new rules up for a vote in two weeks, after the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, his conspirators, and other terrorists should not be afforded rights from a judicial system of a country they seek to destroy," House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

Frist seeks vote

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, has said he wants the Senate to vote on the new rules before the end of the month.

"It's important to the safety and security of the American people that we address this issue ... before we depart," Frist said in an interview.

Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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